It’s playoffs time! Can’t believe it’s already here. We’ve got a little break before Charlotte kicks off the six-race “second season,” so it’s as good a time as any to file my last regular-season blog.
Following the Seattle race and prior to Brainerd, Pam and I were able to take in a concert by The Bacon Brothers, with actor Kevin Bacon and his brother performing together. They came to our hometown of Greeneville, and I was really blown away by how good Kevin Bacon is as a musician. He and his brother played a little bit of everything and were just amazing. He stayed right in downtown Greeneville and we got the chance to see him in the hotel while we were having dinner, so that was a pretty neat deal.
Come race weekend at Brainerd, this was the first year I can ever remember that I didn’t have a chance to visit the “Zoo,” where all the Brainerd fans camp and whoop it up. It was just a busy weekend for us so I didn’t have time to make it over, but I will next year for sure. Those Minnesota fans sure know how to enjoy a race, both on and off the track. I did hit one of my fave restaurants, the Black Bear Lodge, and went to town on some tasty prime rib three nights in a row.
Come race time, qualifying was excellent. My “Magneti Marelli Offered by Mopar” guys helped put us on the pole in the No. 1 spot for eliminations, but we experienced a malfunction and went home way earlier than we should have. We had a fast car, and sure should have gone further in eliminations, but just couldn’t make it.
With Brainerd in the books, up next was our big trip to Sweden, where we visited with Thomas Lindström, who competes in the FIA European Drag Racing Championship in one of our old Dodge Pro Stock cars, with Mopar HEMI engines supplied by our J&J Racing team. I had never made it over to Europe, so Pam and I were excited for the trip. We left the Wednesday morning after Brainerd — and arrived in Sweden on Thursday morning with flight time and the time difference. I missed an entire night of sleep! Pam was able to crash out, but I couldn’t, so I was up for about 32 hours straight.
I was a little groggy, but it was an eye-opening experience. We spent the first day in Stockholm, and I was blown away by how clean the city was and how professional everyone seemed to look as we traveled around. Stefan Ernryd, Thomas’ team owner, stayed with us and was sort of our tour guide around Stockholm all day. We had a late lunch with him and his wife and then headed to our hotel, a 300-year-old inn near Tierp Arena, where Thomas was competing.
Tierp Arena is a beautiful facility, just as good as any venue we race at over here. FIA Euro Drag events are set up just like NHRA events, with two days of qualifying and the race on Sunday. We stayed for all three days of the event, spending time with Thomas, Stefan and the entire team, and had a blast. I worked with the team during my visit and pointed out a few things, but it didn’t help any as the track got really cold. About everyone shook the tires, including Thomas, who fell in the first round. It was only about 54 degrees and the track temp was 60 degrees, so anybody would have had trouble in those conditions.
All in all it was immensely rewarding to see our cars and engines performing thousands of miles away. The Swedish folks are about as Mopar crazy as us, if not more, believe it or not. And you wouldn’t believe the spread the team put on. They had a chef at the track fixing food for us with Swedish meatballs and mashed potatoes, which is right up my alley. But Thomas did the weirdest thing, taking strawberry preserves and mixing them right up in the mashed potatoes. I teased him a bit and yelled, “What are you doing??” And the coffee, you can drink a little bitty cup of it, and you think the top of your head is going to blow off — it’s that strong. It’s a kick to see all the different foods and customs, and Pam and I are hoping to make it back over soon.
We left Sweden on Monday at 10 a.m. and arrived in Newark at about 12:30 p.m., so we gained back most of the time that we lost. Coming back wasn’t near as bad or hard on the system. We finally made it to our house in Greeneville at 8:30 p.m. that night, then I re-packed and left for St. Louis the next morning to test. Definitely logged a lot of air miles in the month of August.
St. Louis was about the hottest I’ve ever been in my life. It was near 100 degrees and 80 percent humidity. I made the equivalent of about 12 runs that day, and I think the time spent suffering in the heat should pay off when we return to St. Louis for the Countdown playoffs.
We flew to Kokomo, Ind., the next day for a visit at the Chrysler Kokomo Transmission plant, where we signed autographs and met workers while our “Magneti Marelli Offered by Mopar” Dodge Dart car was on display. My dad Roy and I went, and it was very impressive seeing what they do there. Dad was a transmission specialist when he worked at a Chrysler dealership back in the day, so he was in heaven. The Kokomo plant had a showroom with old transmissions on display, and Dad knew all about them. It was cool seeing him talk with some of the longtime plant employees, some of whom he was in contact with back in the ’70s when he was racing Super Stock for Dodge.
We hit Indy for the U.S Nationals on Thursday, and I hit the links for the Eric Medlen Memorial Golf Tournament at Eagle Creek Golf Club. The group I was part of shot a respectable 17 under, but scores weren’t the focus. It was about helping to keep the memory of Eric alive while also supporting a great cause, the Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent, and I was honored to take part.
Of course, I can’t be in Indy and not visit the St. Elmo Steak House. After the tournament on Thursday I stopped in for some shrimp and prime rib. Pam was jealous because she didn’t come until Friday, but we had a team dinner on Sunday with our crew and Jeg’s crew, so she was able to enjoy some St. Elmo’s after all!
Before qualifying at Indy on Friday, Jeg and I hit the staging lanes to check out the Mopar HEMI Challenge cars and watch the first round. They had a huge field, like 26 cars, all 1968 Mopar HEMI-powered Dodge Darts or Plymouth Barracudas. It’s always a highlight at Indy to watch those HEMI machines duke it out.
That was about our only highlight at the U.S. Nationals. We had something — I’ve been calling it a “virus” — on the car that carried over from Brainerd. I think we found what it was, but it gave us problems with the engines at Brainerd and at Indy, until the last qualifying run. We found the problem, and Jeg and I both stepped up in that final Indy qualifying run. We made progress big time, although we didn’t show it on Monday at Indy very well. But we found something that had been plaguing us for a couple of races. Jeg and I were not happy at all with our performance there. The only good thing to come out of Indy is that we found the problem, and we’re optimistic heading to Charlotte.
Everything starts new with the Countdown playoffs kicking off at Charlotte. I’m just 40 markers behind points leader Jason Line, and Jeg’s 50 back. In this second season, we have got to eliminate the little problems that have plagued us the last few races. The key to success in the Countdown is to avoid early-round losses. With the “virus” out of our system, hopefully we can do that, go rounds and bring home that second NHRA Pro Stock World Championship to Mopar and to our shop in Greeneville, Tenn.
Well, another one is in the books. We know the Western Swing is always going to be a knockdown, drag-out fight, and it doesn’t get any easier as the years go on. You have to come prepared, with all your motors and parts on the rig for the trip out west to Denver, Sonoma and Seattle.
Of course, the first stop on the swing was Denver, and we are always absolutely thrilled to go there. Plus, the little extra pressure is a challenge for our team, and it’s fun putting together the combination to overcome that challenge. My schedule is always on overload at the Mopar Mile-High Nationals. We did media rounds on Wednesday, and then at night I hit Bandimere Speedway for the Mopar Wholesale Customer event. I usually race one customer on the strip in a stock Dodge Challenger, but that got rained out, so Matt Hagan and I served as emcees, handing out a bunch of prizes to the Mopar customers, including big-screen TVs. The Mopar folks sure give out some sweet swag!
Thursday was the NHRA press conference (great food at Morton’s in downtown Denver), and later that night was Mopar’s big bash, the Mopar Block Party in downtown Golden. It was just an amazing turnout once again, with folks packing the streets until well after sundown, and lining up down the block for the Team Mopar autograph session. Once the race started, we got the chance to talk a bit with Tom Hoover, the father of 426 HEMI, which is celebrating 50 years in 2014. Dad and Hoover, who was the Grand Marshal of the event, swapped stories and compared notes about the big ‘ole “Elephant” engine.
When it comes to racing at Denver, there’s a lot of pressure, with our track record of success and also it being our sponsor Mopar’s big race. I try to deal with it by turning the pressure into a challenge. I think, “Hey, you got this pressure, these expectations; let’s see if you can meet ’em.” I challenge myself as a driver to try to dig deep in the gut and go every round like I need to do.
Fortunately, we were able to do it again. I was so pumped up that my teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. also advanced to the final, making it an all-Mopar affair. We ran a great run in our Magneti Marelli/Mopar Dodge Dart after Jeg red-lighted off the starting line. It was my third straight win at Denver, sixth in eight years, and my eighth consecutive final-round appearance at Bandimere Speedway. All I can say is that I’m extremely happy Mopar extended its sponsorship of the event for another three years!
It would have been great to sweep the Swing, but we settled for a quarterfinals appearance at Sonoma and a semifinals showing at Seattle. The guys had planned on taking a vacation between Sonoma and Seattle, but we ended up hurting an engine in Sonoma, so that ended that. Two of our guys had to cancel plans and fly home with the motor and get it fixed before Seattle. But that’s part of the deal with what we do out here — we all know those things happen.
The Swing is grueling and intense, but it’s also challenging and enjoyable. We started off with a bang and didn’t finish it as good as we could have, but all in all I would say we had a pretty successful Western Swing. We gained great points on Erica Enders-Stevens, with her team sitting out Sonoma and Seattle. Erica, Jason Line and I are all within 40 points of each other. It’s anybody’s race to get that bonus for being No. 1 in the standings heading into the Countdown playoffs following the U.S. Nationals.
We were able to have a little bit of fun out west. Jeggy and Woody stayed out between Sonoma and Seattle, and Dave Connolly and his girlfriend did as well, so Pam had a friend to hang out with. Connolly, Jeg, Woody and I played golf a couple of times. We hit the links at the Green Valley Country Club, thanks to our friend Joe Murdaca, a member of the club and a big drag racing fan who comes out to the track at Sonoma every year. Joe’s been a friend to a lot of racers and always invites us to his restaurant, Pietro’s, which we hit up on Sunday night after the race and enjoyed a great meal.
Any loyal readers of my blog will know how much I love Scoma’s restaurant in San Francisco. Each year, we meet there for a huge team dinner, and enjoy some great seafood. Did it again this year, and the food and setting was as awesome as ever.
Back home in Greeneville, I had lunch with Pam’s dad, who is doing great in his recovery from a stroke. Pam and I are going to hit our lake house near Greeneville this weekend, as we get a little breather before Brainerd. And a little bit after we finish up at the “Zoo,” Pam and I are heading to Sweden to meet my friend Thomas Lindström, who competes in the FIA European Drag Racing series in one of our retired Dodge Stratus race cars. The HEMI engines for his Stratus are built by my dad Roy and our J&J Racing team in Tennessee and shipped over to Sweden. It’s going to be a quick trip — we’re leaving the Wednesday after Brainerd, and will be back Monday of the week of the U.S. Nationals. Should be a unique experience to visit with our European counterparts — I’m going to bring a little Tennessee flavor over to Sweden!
Phew. It’s been a busy few weeks leading up to this past weekend’s Thunder Valley Nationals at my home track of Bristol Dragway, but before I recap it all for you, let me start at the very end first.
Things on track did not go as we had hoped or planned at Bristol. We had high hopes that this was the year we would earn that elusive win at home, but we didn’t make it past the first round. I’m disappointed. The whole team is disappointed. We wanted to do well in front of all our friends and family and hometown fans who have supported us through thick and thin for so many years.
We could never thank them enough for all for their love and support, but losing that first round of eliminations afforded us the chance to thank one fan in particular.
For years, every time I drove my Dodge through the water box for a run at Bristol, the team would look up in the stands from the line because they could hear one particularly LOUD fan cheering for us above everyone and everything else. And I mean EVERYTHING else including our HEMI engine. This year was no different. The mystery fan was there in the stands again this year, yelling at the top of her lungs for us on every run.
After Sunday’s first-round loss, after taking a few minutes to digest the disappointment, after doing some interviews with the media to explain what happened, and after thanking our friends and family for coming and supporting us, Pam and I headed to the stands to meet and thank one more important person.
We came to find out that the mystery woman’s name is Darlene Dalton. Her reaction when I showed up in the stands to see her was absolutely priceless and instantly made everything better. There she was jumping up and down in her wheelchair and screaming at the top of her lungs. It even brought Pam to tears. If the other people in the stands didn’t know I was there, they sure did now.
Many of them have been hearing Darlene cheering for me and the Mopar team for years, and to see her finally meet me and how happy she was, made everyone’s day, especially mine. The whole stand erupted in applause. It was overwhelming. It was an incredible experience and I feel truly blessed to have the support of such a lovely lady and such wonderful fans. We’ll keep working on trying to win that elusive Wally at home again next year, but for this year, Pam said it best, our prize was meeting Darlene Dalton. And when we do finally drive our Mopar into that winner’s circle at Bristol, Darlene will be there with us.
So what happened in the first round? When I left the starting line, the car was pretty decent in first gear and then it started chattering the left tire and pushing me over to the center line. I knew if I make a big correction I’d kill a lot of e.t. so I was trying to ease it back but never could get it to take hold. Then it made one big move and I was getting ready to relive Gainesville from a few years back if I had stayed in it. I thought, “You know what? There’s another race next week” and backed off. Disappointments like this will just make it that much sweeter when we do win our home race.
Leading up to the Bristol weekend, we had a lot going, on and off the race track.
On the race track, we’ve been making some really good progress with the new Dodge Dart over the last few weeks. Both Jeggie (Coughlin Jr.) and I have made some strides and it showed at Atlanta, Topeka and Englishtown where we combined for consecutive wins at all three events and the Magneti Marelli Dodge Dart was No.1 qualifier at Englishtown. Jeggie and I were tied for second going into Bristol and now we’re second and third in the standings. We’ve got to keep at it every week and we will. We’ve combined for five wins so far this year but we’ve got a few more to go in order to catch points leader, Erica (Enders-Stevens) to defend our championship titles the last two years.
Away from the track, it took a lot to get organized to host friends and family for Bristol but it was worth it. We wanted to make sure everyone knows how much we appreciate their support. Thanks to Doug Fezell and Professional Vending Services, we even had an ice cream maker parked in our pits this weekend as a treat for everyone. That thing was awesome. My dad Roy couldn’t get enough of watching how the one-horsepower engine worked to churn the ice cream. I’m pretty sure he was a fan of the ice cream too.
Earlier in the week, we had employees and friends take part in our Quick Stop Markets and Greenville Oil charity golf outing in support of the Greenville Community Ministries Food Bank, a charity that does a lot of good. We were able to raise almost 20 thousand dollars for them this year, the biggest year yet for our tournament. I also took part in Bristol’s Speedway Childrens Charity golf tournament that has the support of a lot of the local businesses. They raised three of four times that, so it was a great week helping the community and I even got to play some golf.
I’ve done quite a bit of flying this past month too. I’m in the final stages of getting my pilot’s license aboard a Cessna Skyhawk 172. I’ve been working on it since about the first of this year. I do own my own twin engine Navajo plane and have a pilot to get us to where we need to go. I’ve been the co-pilot in that thing for three years but I wanted to get legal. I’ll continue to have a pilot when flying my family to races but I just want to be able to be official. I had my first solo flight in May and now have about six hours of solo flying time. I’ll be ready to take my written test soon, but I still have a few 150 mile cross-country trips to do before I take my flying test with a FAA instructor.
A few weeks ago I posted a fun photo of the plane on the Dragway at Rockingham where we were testing. I can’t take credit for that landing as it was actually my instructor who did that because I’d get in big trouble if I tried it.
For now, the only solo flying I’ll be doing is down the race track in the Dodge Dart. We’re now headed to Epping, New Hampshire to defend my win there last year in the inaugural event, then Chicago and Norwalk to complete this stretch of four races. Watch out because we’re going to get after it.
Aside from racing, I’ve had a chance recently to get in some golf. I participated in the B.R.A.K.E.S. golf tournament the Thursday morning before the 4-Wide event. My team shot 59, but we couldn’t pull out the win. I’ve been working on my game a bit; I had a chance to take a lesson from a friend right before Charlotte. I’m aiming to get my game back where it was, and get that handicap down. It’s still too high!
After Charlotte, Pam and I chilled in our Florida home in Sanibel, where we spent the better part of a week right before Easter. Of course we flew back home to Greeneville to celebrate Easter Sunday with our families, both my side and Pam’s. We had the whole family at my mom and dad’s, about 30 people, so mom had her hands full in the kitchen. Gosh, the best thing she makes is mashed potatoes and homemade yeast rolls. She makes them from scratch and they rise in the fridge all night — oh man, they’re good! Then we do the same thing with Pam’s family at her grandmother’s place, eat a lot of awesome food and visit with loved ones.
Between Charlotte and Houston we didn’t do any testing, just golfed and relaxed a bit. Thankfully the Tennessee weather has been how spring weather should be, nice and and beautiful, and we were able to recharge the batteries before heading out to Houston. It seemed to pay off.
I think we had a really great weekend, taking the No. 1 spot in our Magneti Marelli Offered by Mopar Dodge Dart and finishing runner-up in a tough final round against Erica. Our cars were the best on track all weekend, so it was fitting we met her in the final. I got the best of her at Gainesville, and she paid me back at Houston. Aside from my teammate Jeg, there’s no one I would rather race in a final round than Erica. We’re great friends, and it’s not hard to keep our racing rivalry separate from our personal relationship. We’re both adults, and away from the drag strip it never even comes up. Now, at the drag strip, I want to tear her eyes out — just like she does me. It’s actually not a hard thing at all to separate. I hope she’s the driver who earns the 100th win for a female — just as long as it doesn’t come at my expense.
We can’t exactly pinpoint the difference in our Dart from Charlotte, where we exited early, to Houston. I know we never got the right balance in the Dart at Charlotte. You have that starting area there that drops — we call it the “ski slope” — and we never quite got the balance for going over the slope. At Houston, we made great runs down low, which equated into great numbers. We’re still a little perplexed about Jeggy’s Dodge Dart. We had to make some radical changes to get him up to snuff on Sunday, and we don’t really understand why. We’re planning to test in Atlanta next week before the race, and we’ll probably run some of his stuff through my car to see if we can get him back on track.
It was busy off-track as well at Houston. I made an appearance at the Helfman Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram open house on Thursday night — man, what a dealership. That place is like a Taj Mahal. Some of the big boys from the Mopar brand, like Pat Dougherty, were in attendance, which tells you how much they think of that dealership. The Helfman folks did a lot of advertising and we had a great crowd, with a lot of car enthusiasts out to meet Matt Hagan and me.
One of my best friends from high school who used to race motocross with me lives in Houston, so he and his girlfriend took Pam and I into Houston’s Chinatown district for dinner one night — and that sure was an experience. When we walked in the front door, there was a tank filled with big ole live frogs. My friend said, “We’re going to have one of them,” and I said, “Like heck we are,” but I may have used a different word besides heck. I ate a big piece of squid, and I did end up breaking down and tried some frog — it was pretty good. It wasn’t frog legs, like we eat back in Tennessee. This was the whole a frog! It tasted great, a bit like fish.
On Friday we surprised Pam with a little birthday party in Erica and Richie’s motorhome and pits, and I treated her to a little shopping spree as well. Saturday was April 26, or 4/26, which marks HEMI Day, in reference to the famed Mopar 426 HEMI engine that is still dominant in drag racing. I really think Mopar is doing a great job of getting the word out about the 50th anniversary and about having some fun with HEMI Day. We even did a video wishing fans a Happy HEMI Day (you can see it at http://youtu.be/NcSanOT5OHI ). The racetrack announced it a bunch, and a lot fans came up to me in the pits and the first thing they would say was “Happy HEMI Day,” so that was cool.
We’re heading to Atlanta next, and not to jinx myself, but the Mopar/J&J Racing team and I are on quite a streak. We haven’t had a DNQ since 2009 at Richmond, and even that one was a freak deal. From Friday to Saturday that year at Richmond the weather changed dramatically — we were running like 6.70s on Friday, and then on Saturday the weather cooled down 30 degrees and Pro Stock was running in the 6.50s. I was No. 1 on Friday, and then ended up getting booted out on Saturday at No. 17, because I broke a lifter in the burnout and didn’t even get to make a run.
For this current streak, I think the biggest thing it speaks to is the consistency of the J&J Racing team. My crew chief Mark Ingersoll, my dad and engine builder Roy Johnson, our Mopar HEMI engines, all have been a huge help in keeping me away from those dreaded DNQs, so hats off to them. We’ll try to make it more than 100 races without a DNQ in a few weekends at Atlanta.
On a regular race track, I think we’ve got the balance of our Magneti Marelli/Mopar Dodge Dart set up real good. We won in Gainesville with it, we had a freak deal happen at Vegas, sucking up that piece of trash while making a run, and then at Charlotte we never did get the balance right going over the “ski slope.” In Houston we were back on a regular track, and it performed well.
So I’m feeling real good about the Dodge Dart heading to Atlanta. The track should be hot and humid, just like Houston, so it will be right up our alley. Atlanta was our home track for a long time before Bristol came back into being, so it’s not far from our Greeneville race shop. We’ll have a lot of friends and family in attendance cheering us on, and hopefully we can make ‘em proud.